Trump’s superpower is entirely human and all too common. Recognizing it is the first step to defeating bad explanations.
This the first post in a series that explores the pandemic and its impact on problem-solving and knowledge creation.
Do you think Trump has a superpower? Depending on your leanings, he’s either a political genius or an idiot savant. “He is completely unencumbered by the truth,” wrote Charles Blow, “the need to tell it or accept it.”
Trump attributes his success to his gut and his style is certainly fast and intuitive. But the ability is altogether human, used and abused by all of us. Trump marshals industrious little rationalizations called ad hocs to fatigue his foes. Fact checkers lie exhausted in his wake as he moves from one alternate reality to the next.
Trump certainly seems impervious to reality. He’s weathered countless scandals, court battles, even a Presidential impeachment. Teflon Donald. Not even recorded evidence can stop him. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” he told his faithful. He famously boasted that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and still not lose voters.
But in Trump’s perverse fairy tale, only one person is hurt. What happens when reality changes so profoundly that hundreds of thousands of people are lost in the pandemic’s wake?
History suggests the pandemic is the perfect setting for Trump’s authoritarian impulses. The chaos of a crisis provides ample cover. On the occasion of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Timothy Snyder shared 20 prescient lessons for recognizing authoritarian behaviors. He highlighted how authoritarians will seize on “emergencies” and “exceptions” to alter the balance of power. Snyder wrote, “The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book.” Many authoritarians apparently got the playbook: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are staging “coronavirus coups” to seize even greater power.
Unlike these other authoritarians, Trump’s political fortunes are suffering during the pandemic. Why?
Trump’s daily coronavirus pressers offered insights (certainly not on the pandemic, but on the mechanics of ad hocs). Self-congratulation and infallibility were always the through line. Around this basic structure Trump wove stories of his predecessor’s failings, the lying media, “complainers” at the state and local levels, and his inexpert opinions on treatments. When these performances were challenged, Trump would retreat to his authority, marching away from the journalists and their “nasty” questions.
But finally, in the momentous disinfectant and light affair, Trump flew too close to reality. He theorized about the possible medical benefits of disinfectants and therapies that use “ultraviolet or just very powerful light.” Unlike Trump’s typical maneuvers, this explanation was readily refuted in the moment, amplified by the stunned reactions of his scientific advisors.
Contrary to the myth, Trump is unusually vulnerable to reality. Reality is Trump’s Kryptonite. His world is so thoroughly constructed and imagined that any intrusion of reality, even by his own reckoning, causes shockwaves. Paul Waldman observed, “It is reality that changed around him, and he was incapable of responding to it.”
So if Trump is uniquely vulnerable to reality, why isn’t he thoroughly dismantled by experts?
Whether the battle is won depends on where the battle is waged. Experts pursue good explanations. They pursue reality. Authoritarians pursue only what’s acceptable to the ruling authority. For Trump, these public health, economic and social crises are simply unacceptable (particularly in an election year). And so reality must be denied, by whatever means necessary.
In February, Trump had a feeling that the virus would disappear. In lieu of an explanation, he summoned a miracle. In April, he repeated his assertion that the virus would eventually disappear without explaining how that would happen. But in this retelling, the responsibility for this mistaken prophecy had to be reassigned. “The experts got it wrong,” he said.
Greater threats require darker measures. Public health reports were buried. Economic updates were withheld. Trump’s allies, triumphant in their battles with congressional oversight, inspectors general and whistleblowers, marched on the public health institutions and experts.
A particularly revealing contest concerns tests. Tests, the most effective reality-probing tool at our disposal, became overrated. Tests, of the sacred test-trace-isolate trilogy, became unnecessary. “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases,” Trump said.
Pundits mocked his error: Tests don’t cause Covid, you moron!
But pundits, focusing on reality, missed the point. Framed from an authoritarian perspective, Trump’s assertion is quite right: Tests cause his alternate reality to crumble. If we didn’t do any testing, more people would believe we have very few cases. Tests, like experts, illuminate. They provide transparency and light. Authoritarians suffer in the light.
And so tests became not only dispensable, but all the better if never dispensed. In March, when Americans were stranded on the The Grand Princess cruise ship, Trump preferred that they not be brought ashore. Not out of an abundance of caution for Americans, but because, “I like the numbers being where they are,” he said.
Trump’s aversion to tests is merely a window into his aversion to reality. It has little to do with reality directly.
His opponents invariably fall for this shell game. Trump uses ad hoc rationalizations to deny reality and his opponents counter by explaining reality. They waste resources refuting absurd explanations instead of making Trump’s hidden motives explicit.
In pursuit of good explanations, questions about reality are highly productive. But when directed by authoritarians, these questions become weapons of confusion and misdirection. Molly Roberts reflected on this phenomenon in response to the Obamagate affair. She wrote, “Those who know it’s imaginary must deny everything or they risk confirming something.” Roberts noted that as soon as you refute the “tinfoil-hatted crusaders” with a dose of reality, their allegations or theories mutate again.
Tinfoil hats is one of the many disparaging terms directed towards conspiracy theorists. But conspiracy theories and ad hocs are very different beasts. Trump consumes conspiracies but he doesn’t produce them. (That would require too much work.) Instead, ad hocs are his weapon of choice. And conflating ad hocs with conspiracy theories makes it much harder to understand them, let alone defeat them.
I’ll take a closer look at conspiracy theories and the pandemic in the next post.
From The Explainable Startup, exploring the science and philosophy of problem solving.